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Augustana's first black graduate and 'cultural mimicry'

July  28, 2014

Courtesy Augustana Special Collections

This week's NPR's Code Switch feature, "How Turbans Helped Some Blacks Go Incognito In The Jim Crow Era," includes the story of Jesse Routte, the first African-American to graduate from Augustana.

Code Switch journalists cover the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture. They write:

"There's a weekly trial on the Internet about who may be stealing culture from whom. Earlier this week, the defendants were Iggy Azalea and white gay men. A while back, it was Macklemore and the Harlem Shakers.

"Now, we have come across a story from the Jim Crow era about cultural mimicry between people of color."

They spoke with scholars who documented how some people of color used the turban as a tool for "confounding the color lines."

Routte was born in Missouri. His father, a minister of the African Episcopal Church, moved his family around ministering to congregations in the Midwest. After his father's death, Jesse Routte's mother moved them to Rock Island, where he attended high school and then Augustana, according to Paul Kramer, a historian and professor at Vanderbilt University.

Writing in the Antioch Review, Kramer notes:

 "How had Routte made his way into the Augustana world? His parents had raised him in the A.M.E. Church; he had taken 'Wayman,' the name of Rock Island's A.M.E. Church, as his middle name. But... his father felt uneasy with the black church's 'emotional denominations,' as he had called them, preferring more solemn worship. Jesse discovered Augustana... but insiders opened the door. Conrad Bergendoff, a scholar and pioneer in the Lutheran ecumenical movement, had supported his admission."

Routte graduated from Augustana in 1929 and was assigned to a church in Harlem. His trip to Mobile, Ala., in a turban and velvet robe, took place in 1947.

Kramer's detailed account, "The Importance of Being Turbaned," appeared in the spring 2011 edition of the Antioch Review.